New York's trail of tears

October 21, 2001|By C. Fraser Smith

NEW YORK - Charred ruins behind St. Paul's Chapel on Broadway usher visitors into line at what amounts to a national wake.

What remains of one decapitated trade tower stands just behind the chapel's cemetery.

A dark metal rib cage, three or four stories high, seems oddly reassuring. Yes, it happened. Of course, it did.

One comes here to pay respects but also to deal with the lingering unreality of an atrocity. Architects and politicians, whistling past uncertainty, debate the form and size of a memorial to the victims even as many are still coming to terms with 9/11.

Everything, we say, has changed, including our sense of time and the pace of life. We have not quite come to terms with a moment that redrew the skyline of our lives while anthrax spores spill into mailrooms and the air in the U.S. capital.

So one makes a pilgrimage to force away the damned spot of that first TV image: the murder plane rounding from nowhere into a World Trade Center tower. Even pictures of the orange fireball and the soot-coated survivors have not erased that nightmarish scene.

One comes to Manhattan to shoulder some of the sorrow, to say with an afternoon's presence that we ache for those who perished and their families.

One must go also to look into the face of terror and to say, I understand the dimensions of evil in this world, and I will not turn away.

The procession of mourners starts in front of the stone chapel, its cemetery dwarfed by one of the world's largest burial grounds.

Mourners catalog more detail as they look down Dey Street: dangling gray girders; pulverized concrete; snarls of wire. If a building were a living thing, these would be its bones and nervous system.

Further still along the viewing route, one stands on Liberty Street and then Liberty Plaza. From here, the World Trade Center site recedes. But set off against a bright blue sky is a cross-hatching of the red and yellow cranes at work. Hawkers hand out religious tracts ("God's Simple Plan of Salvation"); a man plays "America the Beautiful" on a flute, hoping for a few coins; on a chain link fence across the street, a letter of condolence from Den #5, Naples, Florida: "We Love You."

This dusty trail of tears goes on to Rector Street, where a fuller panorama unfolds. A portion of one tower remains upright, a jagged, defiant fragment. No pictures are allowed: "National security," a policewoman explains mysteriously.

"Overwhelming," says Tiffany Richardson of Salisbury. "One good thing: 40,000 people could have been in there," she says. On Sept. 11, she canceled her 2-year-old daughter's birthday party.

"People were too upset," she says.

People are still upset.

A woman with a spangled lapel pin pulls her wheeled suitcase up to one of the restraining barriers seeming to know in advance that she won't be up to her task. She begins to cry silently. She forces herself to stay in spite of her horror, then crosses herself and turns back into the river of people.

Kathy Hedrick and her husband, Mark, make the circuit and then rest at City Hall Park. He's wearing a Fire Department of New York cap, the headgear of choice these days. She has a flowing U.S. flag scarf tucked around her neck. They're from Lancaster, Ohio, visiting on their first wedding anniversary. Native New Yorkers they meet at the Best Western say they are too weary and traumatized to visit. So the Hedricks and others take over, stepping in with words of comfort and support.

"We need a memorial here," Ms. Hedrick says, "a park where people can come to reflect and not forget what they did to our country - not just to New Yorkers."

On Sept. 11, she is saying, every American became a New Yorker.

Until then, said Bill Toohey, the Baltimore County Police Department's spokesman, this city seemed the least typical of American cities: "It's too big, too artsy, too sinful, too noisy to be American."

But for Mr. Toohey and his wife, Rosemary, no place ever meant more. They met here, married and had three children here. They lived in several New York neighborhoods, moving every time their family grew. They worked at Rockefeller Center, looked out at the city from the Rainbow Grill, knew which subway to ride to Wall Street. So they had to come.

"It's like having a friend who's had a death in the family. You want to go," he said. The crowd, he thought, seemed so quiet, as if in church or at Arlington National Cemetery.

The Tooheys walked back through Chinatown, to Little Italy, through Tribeca and Soho, places they know as well as they know Fells Point. Then they came home, still apt to cry at a recollection of the outpouring of condolence they saw on firehouse doors, on the rent-a-fence billboards that keep people at a safe distance.

One visitor, Paul Mendes of Houston, a railroad engineer, thought it was almost too soon even to visit.

"I didn't feel it would be appropriate to come," he said. "The whole situation is still going on. We haven't resolved anything with the terrorists." But his wife insisted.

Notwithstanding Mr. Mendes' observation, talk of memorial planning continues. As if the new world will be safe for such concerns, as if all this will surely be behind us in time, the debaters talk of rebuilding - not two but three towers, taller still. Others want a park - with a fragment of the splintered building as memorial sculpture.

The Rev. Lyndon Harris, pastor of St. Paul's Chapel, says his church may use part of a sycamore that was uprooted in the church's cemetery on Sept. 11. It shielded the church, he thought.

"We're thinking of using part of the trunk to make a baptismal font. We have to remember what happened and grieve, and we have to look forward, too," he said.

For now, those who pass the smoldering bier can provide their own internal memorials: part anguished, angry scream, part prayer.

"All this dust," says Kathy Hedrick, "might be part of somebody. We're walking on hallowed ground."

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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